RALEIGH, N.C. — T.J. Warren will to have to carry the scoring load for North Carolina State to be competitive this season. Fortunately for the Wolfpack, Warren is an elite scorer.
Unfortunately, though, he’s gotten off to some slow starts in the past few games, and at times his team has struggled early as a result. Even after posting a pair of 30-point efforts in his last two games (both wins), Warren was still asked afterwards about the quiet starts. So when he started fast in N.C. State’s 69-48 win over Northwestern on Wednesday night, he made sure he wouldn’t have to get that question again.
“I think it was because everyone asked questions about why T.J. didn’t start earlier, so T.J. decided to start earlier today,” senior center Jordan Vandenberg quipped after the game. “He’s very self-motivated, and that really helped him out today. It helped us out today. I’m pretty sure he was scoring half our team’s points for most of the day.”
With age comes wisdom, and Vandenberg has been around N.C. State long enough to have plenty of it.
Turns out he was right on both counts.
“It is true,” Warren, who finished with 22 points, said after the game. “Everybody’s been telling me … ‘You’ve got to bring it in the first half.’ So I just wanted to come out right out of the gate and just be aggressive and just make plays around the basket.”
He certainly did just that, and then some. In the first 17 minutes, no other player could score — on either team. Warren poured in 16 points on 7-of 10-shooting during that stretch alone. Everyone else combined for 21 points. And his own teammates had just six points on 3-of-15 shooting.
But then N.C. State got going against the Northwestern zone, hitting 17 of its 31 shots for 41 points in the final 22-plus minutes. Warren had just six in that span, but his work was done. He had kept the Wolfpack afloat during a cold stretch while his teammates gained confidence.
Northwestern head coach Chris Collins is in his first season at the helm after spending decades as an assistant at Duke. He remembers Warren quite well from his freshman season at N.C. State, from devising ways to stop or slow down all of the dangerous players from last year’s squad. This year, most of those players are gone. But Warren remains, and Collins said he’s even better. And that’s after he was N.C. State’s most efficient player offensively a year ago, shooting over 63 percent from inside the arc.
Efficiency aside, though, Warren was still the fourth or fifth option at best a year ago.
That’s not the case now, and Warren, who spent all offseason preparing to take on that burden of being The Guy this year, is more than ready for the challenge.
“Actually, I’ve seen a lot of growth. First of all you notice physically, you can tell he’s really worked on getting in great shape. He’s a lot thinner, noticeably. His body looks great,” Collins said. “I just admire the way he plays because he’s a scorer that’s very unique because he’s always moving. You watch him on film and he just has a knack for finding that open area and cutting and moving without the ball.
“He scores in a lot of ways. He can post. He can shoot it. He’’s a great cutter. He gets to the foul line. He’ll be one of the leading scorers, if not the leading scorer, in the ACC this year. That’s what he’s always done. He’s been a scorer by trade.”
Collins has a keen eye — Warren has indeed lost weight in preparation to play at the three-spot full-time. He played the four a bit while Vandenberg sat out with a sprained ankle, but the big man’s return means Warren is free to roam once more.
And Collins was also right about leading the league in scoring — at least, so far. Warren is averaging 22.6 points through seven games, just half a point ahead of Duke freshman Jabari Parker. Warren’s average actually DROPPED with the 22-point effort against Northwestern.
He’s going to score, and score a lot. Because he’ll have to, yes. But also because he can.
He’s ready for the responsibility.
“Last year, it was hard — they had so much talent last year. It was going to be hard for him to get 15 shots in a game with Lorenzo Brown and C.J. Leslie and Scott Wood and Richard Howell and Rodney Purvis,” Collins said. “I think what he’s done is he knows he’s the leader now. He knows he’s the guy and he’s playing great.”